Watch your back with these five strategies
Wander into any weight room in the world, and we bet you wouldn’t have to look too hard to find a lifter complaining about back pain. Whether it’s due to lifting too much or not stretching enough, back pain is something that’s so synonymous with the lifting community to the point where it’s become the subject of hundreds of internet memes. But you shouldn’t have to pass off back pain as just ‘adulthood’ or part & parcel of strength training - you can still lift with the best of them while maintaining a healthy, strong back. Because it’s better to be proactive than reactive, we’ve outlined our five best strategies for ensuring you’ll never have to hold back when you’re in the gym.
01. STRONG TO THE CORE
Strengthening your core is one of the best ways of protecting your back against injury or chronic pain. If your core is weak, your body will be more reliant on the passive muscles & ligaments when you’re lifting, which will place more stress on the discs in your back and increase your likelihood of injury. A strong core will also help you with maintaining correct form and posture during your back exercises like bent-over rows & dumbbell rows. We’ve outlined a few of our favourite core exercises to help you avoid back injury below!
If you have an already existing lower back injury, exercise caution and don’t use strengthening exercises which aggravate pre-existing injuries.
ALTERNATING DOG AND BIRD
Starting on your hands and knees on a mat (optional), try to create a square with your thighs, torso, arms and the floor. Keep your head and neck in line with the rest of your body as well as keeping your back straight. This is your starting position.
1. Slowly lift the opposing arm and leg into the air as high as possible.
2. Return to the start position in a controlled manner.
3. Repeat on the other side, alternating through for time or reps.
- Engage through your core and keep braced through your entire body.
- Do your best to avoid swaying your hips from side to side.
- The initial phase of the movement will always be the most challenging, so take your time and try not to rush the movement
Lay down on your back on a mat (optional) with your knees bent and feet firmly planted on the ground a little wider than hip width apart. You can have your hands down by your sides on the ground. This is your starting position.
1. Drive your feet straight into the ground as you lift your hips up, focusing on squeezing your glutes.
2. Control back down to the floor in a controlled manner.
3. Complete for reps or time.
- Try to stack your ribs over your pelvis.
- Avoid arching your lower back.
- If you are feeling your quads contract, make sure you are pushing your feet straight down into the ground and not away from you.
- Aim to keep your knees out inline with your feet and avoid them caving in.
- If this is too easy, try adding extra resistance. You can use pieces of equipment such as a dumbbell, kettlebell, small barbell, medicine ball etc.
- Try adding a resistance band around your lower thighs for extra tension.
Start by laying on your back on a mat (optional) with your knees bent and feet off the ground. Both arms should be held straight up in front of you. This is your starting position.
1. Slowly extend one leg out away from your body as far as you can without it touching the ground.
2. At the same time, extend the opposite arm out over your head as far as you can without it touching the ground.
3. Bring both extended limbs back to the starting position.
4. Repeat on the opposite side, alternating through for time or reps.
- Focus on bracing through your core to try and avoid lifting your lower back off the ground.
02. BETTER POSTURE
If you’re someone who spends hours slumped in a chair everyday, you might find that your posture needs a bit of TLC. Whether you’re stuck working from home or slumped on the sofa watching the Friends reunion, it’s easy to revert to bad posture habits that place added stress on your spine, which over time can lead to widespread back pain & injury. By fixing your static posture, you’ll suppot your muscles, spine and ligaments, and decrease the chances of things going south in the squat rack. Here’s a few of our best posture tips & cues.
-When you’re standing, the top of your shoulders should be above your hips and your earlobes should be in line with your shoulders.
-Stand with most of your weight on the balls of your feet, and let your arms lie naturally at your sides. Tuck in your stomach to avoid arching your back and keep your feet shoulder width apart to ensure your weight is evenly distributed
-When seated, your back should be straight, your shoulders should be rolled back and your butt should touch the back of your chair. A lot of people tend to slouch when they sit, and touching your butt to the back of the chair helps prevent this and provides your back with more support.
-Keep both feet flat on the floor with your knees bent at a 90 degree angle, and at an even height to your hips. Keep your shoulders relaxed and rest your elbows and arms on your chair or desk if possible.
-Avoid sitting for too long, and ensure you’re moving every 30 minutes
03. FLEX ON EM
We get it. Stretching isn’t the most exciting part of your workout (very few people post their toe touches to Insta), but regular stretching is vital when it comes to avoiding back pain & injuries. Low levels of flexibility cause stiffness, restricted mobility and increase the likelihood of injury, especially if your hamstrings and hip flexor muscles are shortened. By working on your flexibility, you’ll improve your performance, posture, ability to move & reduce the risk of injury. Here’s a few of our favourite stretches & mobility exercises to help prevent back injuries.
Start on your hands and knees on a mat (optional), with your knees directly below your hips and your hands directly below your shoulders. This is your starting position.
1. Push the floor away from you, rounding your back as far as you can.
2. Hold for a count of 1-3 seconds.
3. Next, push your chest into the ground and arch you back as far as you can.
4. Hold for a count of 1-3 seconds.
5. Repeat these 2 movements, alternating through for reps or time.
- The counts above as just a guideline, if you want to hold each position for longer then that is okay.
- This movement may take a little practice, but once mastered can be an amazing addition to your warmups.
DOWNWARD DOG TO COBRA
Start on your hands and toes and push your hip up into the air. You back should be straight and you should feel a stretch through your hamstrings. This is your starting position.
1. Bend at the elbows, dropping your face towards the floor.
2. As your face approaches the floor, bring your chest down and follow through bringing your head up to arch your back and lowering your hips to the floor.
3. Push back on your hands to return to the starting position.
4. Repeat for reps or time.
- The movement should be smooth and controlled.
- Experiment with your starting position to find what hand and foot placement best work for you.
04. DON’T SKIP BACK DAY
Work your abs & glutes twice a week but keep ignoring your back muscles? While you might not be able to flex them in the mirror as easily, continuing to neglect your back muscles you’ll create imbalances that increase your injury risk and affect your performance. Trust us, a strong posterior chain is just as important as curvy glutes. Here are a few of our back day favourites to keep your whole body strong and injury-free. Remember, if you can’t keep your back muscles enhgaged throughout these exercises then lighten the load and focus on form.
With the barbell set in front of you by your feet at hip width apart, hinge at the hips whilst keeping your back straight to pick the bar up in an overhand grip (palms facing towards you). It's very important that you stand up straight fully before getting into the starting position.
From the standing position, hinge at the hips and keep your back straight until your body is slightly above parallel with the ground. This is the starting position.
1. Pull the barbell up towards your sternum by drawing your elbows back.
2. Squeeze your shoulder blades while pulling and at the top of the movement.
3. Lower the barbell back down to the starting position.
-Keep your core engaged and back straight.
-Avoid looking up throughout the movement and keep your head and neck inline with the rest of your body.
-Avoid swinging your body up and down. The angle of your body should be held consistent throughout the whole movement.
WEIGHTED BACK EXTENSION
The machine angle will dictate the difficulty of the exercise. The steeper the angle, the easier it will be. The flatter the angle, the more difficult the exercise will be. Trial some positions to find the angle that best works for you.
Set the weight down at the bottom of the machine. Make sure the machine is set low enough to not obstruct your hips but still high enough to support your upper legs. Set yourself in the machine with your feet flat on the platform and the back of your lower legs against the padding.
Once your lower body is set, hinge at the hips whilst keeping your back straight until you feel tension on your hamstrings. Pick up the weight, hold to your chest and draw your elbows back. This is the starting position.
1. Push the back of your legs and the front of your upper thighs into the padding to activate your glutes and hamstrings.
2. Pull your body up to be inline with your legs.
3. Return to the starting position in a controlled manner.
- Keep your back straight.
- Do not over extend your lower back at the top of the movement.
- If you feel tension and fatigue in your lower back, make sure you are engaging through your hamstrings and glute muscles.
- If you are still having issues with pain and/or fatigue in your lower back, try completing the exercise without weight.
DB SINGLE ARM ROW
Hold one dumbbell in your hand as you place your opposite knee and hand on a bench. Your other leg should be planted on the floor so that your hips are level. Spread your torso out and have your back straight. The hand holding the dumbbell should be down by the side of the bench, with a small dip in your shoulder. This is your starting position.
1. Retract your shoulder as you pull your elbow up past your ribs as high as you can, bending at the elbow joint.
2. Return to the start position in a controlled manner.
3. Repeat on one side for reps or time, before swapping sides and completing on the other.
- Experiment with your starting position and use a mirror if possible to make sure you are starting with a flat back and level hips.
- Engage through your core to avoid rotation through your torso.
- Make sure you dip your shoulder slightly at the bottom of the movement to get good range through your shoulder joint.
05. BUILD BETTER DAILY HABITS
Sweat the small stuff. The little daily habits you practice can make a big difference when it comes to building a healthier, stronger, less injury-prone back. Here’s a few of our favourite tips & strategies for daily living and lifting
-Sleep with a pillow under your knees. Elevating your legs relieves pressure on your spine when you sleep
-Lighten the load. Always focus on proper form in the gym, especially on back day while you might've gotten away with a few wild bicep curls in the past, you shouldn’t mess around when it comes to your back!
-Use a lifting belt. It’ll reduce stress on the lower back while you’re lifting heavy, and help prevent hyperextension during overhead exercises.
-Get more Calcium and Vitamin D. You can find calcium in foods like milk, yoghurt and leafy greens, and Vitamin D in fatty fish & egg yolks. Getting plenty of these two micronutrients is vital when it comes to keeping a stronger spine and healthier bones.
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